What is ‘Human Givens’?
Human Givens is a psychotherapeutic approach which asserts that every human being shares a common biological inheritance of physical and emotional needs. These needs have evolved over millennia and are now programmed into our genetic make-up. They are the driving force behind our ability to successfully respond and adapt to our environment.
As well as these needs, of which there are nine, nature also gives us a set of innate resources. The Human Givens theory maintains that we seek to fulfil our needs through the way we interact with our environment and that we use the resources given to us by nature to achieve that. It is only when our physical or emotional needs are not being met, or when our resources are being incorrectly used, that we suffer distress.
This understanding had led to improvements in mental health care, from general mental and emotional well-being to the treatment of more severe anxiety disorders, addictions and depression.
And just in case you were wondering, it is because we are all born with these needs and resources that they are called ‘givens’. I think of them more as ‘gifts’. When our needs are not being adequately met, our emotions helpfully point this out to us which is the cue for us to reach into our box of resources to re-establish balance and order in our lives.
Our ‘given’ physical needs
Without physical needs such as air, water, adequate nutrition and sleep we would quickly die. We also need shelter and safety in which to raise our young. In addition, however, we need the freedom to stimulate our senses and exercise our muscles.
These physical needs are intimately bound up with our emotional needs which form the main focus of Human Givens psychology.
Our ‘given’ emotional needs
Nature has given us our emotional needs to help us connect with our environment and the people in it, and to survive. When we experience an emotion, we experience a distinctive psycho-biological state that drives us to take action.
Should, however, we be unable to take the required action with the result that our emotional needs are not met, biology sees to it that we suffer mentally and or physically. That suffering may be expressed as anger, anxiety, depression, OCD, over- or under-eating or in some other way.
These behaviours are just a sign that things are not quite right back at ‘base’. It’s our bodies trying to communicate with us so that our needs can be appropriately met.
People whose emotional needs are met in a balanced way do not suffer mental health problems
There is widespread agreement amongst psychologists as to the nature of our emotional needs. These include:
- Security – a stable home life, safe place to live and an environment which allows us to develop fully;
- Attention (both giving and receiving it – even to/ from a pet);
- Emotional connection to others – through friendship, fun, love and intimacy; knowing that at least one other person accepts us without judgement for who we are;
- Sense of autonomy and control – making responsible choices;
- Social belonging and feeling part of a wider community;
- Sense of status and importance – within the family, work, social group, community;
- Sense of competence and achievement – through maturity, learning and the application of skills;
- Privacy – the opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience;
- Meaning and purpose – which come from being stretched in what we think and do.
Our ‘given’ resources
The resources nature gave us to help us meet our needs include:
- The ability to develop complex long-term memory, which enables us to add to our innate knowledge and learn
- The ability to build rapport, empathise and connect with others
- Imagination, which enables us to focus our attention away from our emotions, use language and problem-solve more creatively and objectively
- Emotions and instincts
- A conscious, rational mind that can check out our emotions, question, analyse and plan
- The ability to ‘know’ – that is, understand the world unconsciously through metaphorical pattern matching
- An observing self – that part of us that can step back, be more objective and aware of itself as a unique centre of awareness, apart from intellect, emotion and conditioning
- A dreaming brain that preserves the integrity of our genetic inheritance every night by metaphorically defusing expectations held in the autonomic arousal system (because they were not acted out the previous day).
These needs and tools together make up the Human Givens and it is the way those needs are met, and the way we use the resources that nature has given us, that determine our physical, mental and moral health.